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We are Singaporean, before anything else

For Syarafana Shafeeq, growing up in Singapore has assured her that she and her countrymen are Singaporeans first.

WHEN I was in primary school, I remember going to the canteen at recess and wondering which group I should sit with. Should it be with my Indian friends, who shared my physical features, but did not speak the language I did? Or with my Malay friends, who shared my tongue, but whose skin tone was considerably fairer than my own?

As it turned out, the question was moot. The canteen in my neighbourhood primary school was never really segregated by race to begin with.

Everyone sat together, enjoying their lunch. I picked up my Powerpuff Girls lunchbox and sat down with one of the groups, happy I didn't have to put much thought into it thereafter.

Recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "We call ourselves Singaporean first, before identifying ourselves by our race."

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And I can safely say, that for me, growing up here, that has been a truth more than just a slogan.

We are all members of a race, but above that, we are citizens of a nation, and that is what identifies us. We are in fact immersed in our very own culture - that of being Singaporean.

I find myself using words that are not part of my own cultural group. How many of us say: "Eh, wanna tabao?" ("Shall we do a takeaway?") And many of my Chinese classmates say: "Let's go makan!" ("Let's go eat!")

I have friends from all races - in school, we change teams every four weeks - so there has just been no option but to mix, mingle and pick up some shared turns of phrases or habits.

I remember explaining how I tie a tudung to my Chinese friend, and how she said she would love to see herself in one. We headed to my home, where I showed her my array of headscarves and asked her which one tickled her fancy.

She chose a floral one, and looked intrigued as I taught her how to wrap it around her face. She laughed happily when I was done, and naturally - being the millennials that we are - we posed for a selfie for Instagram.

My heart warmed

My heart warmed when I saw comments from our friends telling her how cute she looked; others told me they wanted to try it too.

I was never worried about receiving any ill-wished comments about my tudung.

Luckily, for the Muslim community here, Singapore's embrace of multi-culturalism has quelled our anxieties about being discriminated against because of our choice of modest clothing.

However, as an Indian-Malay Muslim woman in a tudung, I still sometimes have a trickling fear that people might judge me a little too quickly based on how I look.

But that quickly dissipates when I eat with my friends at the food court, navigating tables choped with packs of tissue paper, complaining about the crazy weather and chit-chatting about Bollywood movies while waiting in the queue to buy bubble tea. Being Singaporean has exposed us to each other's cultures, and enabled us to link heritage to culture, and culture to identity. We have even gone as far as creating our own language, one that baffles anyone who isn't Singaporean.

"Alamak, then how, like that?" we say, laughing, when foreigners don't understand us. We snicker at the thought of linguists around the world doing research into our manner of speech.

So yes, PM Lee is right.

For many of us, our shared culture, and the things that make us Singaporean - even the not-so-nice bits - are a big part of our identity.

So who are we? Singaporeans.

And what are we? Proud of it.

  • The writer is a third-year mass communications student at Republic Polytechnic